When the draw for the Europa League quarter-finals paired Juventus with Lyon, Fabio Grosso was immediately sought for comment. The newly-installed Bianconeri Primavera Coach represented both clubs in his career, winning Italian and French championships.
“I must admit I got excited when I saw the draw, two teams that are important to me will be facing each other. I’m part of Juventus and will always have Lyon in my heart. I’ve got many friends there and enjoyed a fantastic experience.”
He continued: “I was lucky enough to play with world class talents like Juninho Pernambucano, [Karim] Benzema, [Abdul Kader] Keita and [Jeremy] Toulalan.”
That was then. This is now. It’s no longer the all-conquering club which romped to seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles. This Lyon – led by former defender Remi Garde – is well off the pace set by Paris Saint-Germain. Currently fifth on 48 points, they are six adrift of Europe following inconsistent form.
The continent has also proved a struggle. Dumped from the Champions League in the play-off round, Lyon topped Group I in the Europa, yet scored just six times in as many games. Aside from breaking the shackles and netting four in the Round of 16 first leg with Viktoria Plzen, goals have been hard to come by.
As Grosso notes, there is a youthful outlook in the east of France. “There are a couple of players who were youngsters when I was there and have subsequently managed to break into the first team. The club works very well, they’re serious and passionate about what they do.”
Alexandre Lacazette is one such example. Juve will need to be wary of Lyon’s top scorer who has bagged 14 domestic goals and two in Europe. Strike partner Bafetimbi Gomis has 11 in Ligue 1 and one more than Lacazette on the continent.
Captain Maxime Gonalons was close to Napoli in January, but is now hoping to lead Lyon to the last four. He’ll be looking to make a statement, but former Milan midfielder Yoann Gourcuff is set to miss out because of an ankle problem. He’s one of a number of players unavailable.
The French club go in as the underdog as they host a Juve outfit smarting from only its second domestic loss. Pegged back for long periods by Napoli, the Bianconeri fell to a 2-0 defeat and with it came the end of a 22-game unbeaten run in Serie A. They had won seven straight beforehand.
The favourite to win the Europa League, the question surrounding Juve ahead of the first leg is fatigue. Coupled with injuries, a chunk of the team has been unchanged for a number of matches. That has led to lacklustre performances reliant on moments of individual brilliance rather than overwhelming team showings.
“I believe that we have been missing for a month, players of great worth,” stated captain Gianluigi Buffon after Sunday’s loss. “[Andrea] Barzagli, [Angelo] Ogbonna, we have [Claudio] Marchisio who is slowly coming back, but we also missed [Carlos] Tevez. In short, we were and are in an emergency for the past 30-40 days, with three games a week.”
The Old Lady faces a manageable upcoming domestic run, so the proverbial eggs can be thrown in the Europa League basket as players return. Especially with an 11-point Serie A lead.
Yet Garde can look favourably at how Napoli toppled the Turin club. Juve could not get out of the blocks against a side Buffon says “would spit blood in order to take the scalp of Juventus.” At the Stade de Gerland, where they are unbeaten in Europe this term, Lyon would have to do the same. Rafael Benitez’s men were spot on in stopping Juventus. They outgunned the midfield trio of Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal, stemmed the flow out wide and pegged them back in their half.
Vidal won’t be in France, he sits out suspended. Conversely, Tevez returns. Juve’s top scorer – still without a European goal – is fresh from his own suspension. “I’m calm because sooner or later the goals will come, but it’s not an obsession for me,” he said over the weekend. The Argentine will no doubt be pivotal and an away goal would be the perfect end to the drought.
So how does Grosso see the tie? “They will be two difficult games, but Juventus are aware of their strengths and possess the quality to give anyone a tough time. I’m convinced we’ll see two great matches.”